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Libyan Rebels Set Deadline for Qaddafi Forces to Surrender

Tuesday, 30 August 2011 09:08 By Kareem Fahim, Alan Cowell and Neil MacFarquhar, The New York Times News Service | Report
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Tripoli, Libya — With NATO suggesting that talks were under way between Libya’s combatants, the country’s increasingly self-confident rebels on Tuesday offered forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi a four-day deadline to surrender in their final redoubts after months of fighting that have swept the insurgents from their eastern strongholds to Tripoli.

The rebel ultimatum came a day after neighboring Algeria said it had allowed a two-vehicle caravan of Colonel Qaddafi’s relatives, including his second wife and three of his children, into the country. The flight of his relatives provided powerful new evidence of surrender by the Qaddafi clan as rebels consolidated their hold on the capital, although Colonel Qaddafi and some of his influential sons remain at large.

Speaking at a news conference in the eastern city of Benghazi on Tuesday, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the rebel Transitional National Council, gave forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi until Saturday to negotiate a surrender. The offer related primarily to the coastal town of Surt, Colonel Qaddafi’s hometown and a focus of support for him, but also covered loyalist strongholds at Bani Walid and in the southern oasis town of Sabha.

“By Saturday, if there are no peaceful indications for implementing this, we will decide this matter militarily. We do not wish to do so but we cannot wait longer,” Mr. Abdel-Jalil said.

NATO, which has been conducting an air campaign under a United Nations mandate since March, said it was aware of reports “from a few hours ago” that there had been discussions between loyalist and rebel supporters in Surt. “We see these discussions as encouraging signs, and we will see how they evolve in coming days,” said Col. Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesman, in Naples, Italy, where the alliance’s Libya operation has its headquarters.

But Colonel Lavoie said NATO warplanes were focusing on “a corridor to the eastern edge of Surt.”

Anti-Qaddafi forces have advanced on Surt from the east and west, but have stopped short of an all-out assault. The rebel deadline coincided with the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month which concludes with a major holiday, Id al-Fitr, lasting several days.

Rebel leaders, meanwhile, responded angrily to the Algerian move to give sanctuary to Qaddafi family members, saying the decision was “an aggressive act against the Libyan people’s wish.”

Mahmoud Shammam, the rebel information minister, said the insurgents wanted the family members sent back to Libya.

“We are determined to arrest and try the whole Qaddafi family, including Qaddafi himself,” Mr. Shammam said late Monday night, The Associated Press reported. “We’d like to see those people coming back to Libya.”

Mr. Qaddafi’s wife Safiya, daughter Aisha, and two of his sons, Mohammed and Hannibal, all crossed into Algeria, said Mourad Benmehidi, the Algerian permanent representative to the United Nations. The spouses of Colonel Qaddafi’s children and their children arrived as well, he said.

The announcement was the first official word on the whereabouts of any members of the Qaddafi family since the colonel was routed from his Tripoli fortress by rebel forces a week ago, a decisive turn in the Libyan conflict.

Further signs of calm spread through Tripoli on Tuesday, notably the reopening of banks. Long lines of customers waited patiently for the opportunity to withdraw money, behaving with remarkable civility considering the spasms of violent mayhem that have convulsed the city over the past week. In the newly renamed Martyrs Square, formerly Green Square, the crowds were so peaceful that rebel security forces were hard to find.

The signs of transition in Tripoli first became evident on Monday. In streets freshly decorated with rebel flags, residents preparing to celebrate the end of Ramadan ventured from their homes and visited shops as they reopened. Young men breezily waved cars through checkpoints, which the rebels said they were starting to dismantle because of improving security.

Radio stations that had recently featured songs lauding Colonel Qaddafi now played the revolution’s anthems, over and over.

The colonel’s family members entered Algeria through one of the more southerly crossings in the Sahara, arriving in a Mercedes and a bus at 8:45 a.m., Mr. Benmehidi said. The exact number of people in the party was unclear, Mr. Benmehidi said, but there were “many children.”

While they were fleeing, one of the women in the party gave birth near the border without any medical equipment, the ambassador said. Agence France-Presse, quoting an unidentified government official in Algiers, said Aisha had given birth to a girl. There was no confirmation of the report.

The family was allowed in on “humanitarian grounds,” the Algerian ambassador said, and the Algerian government informed the head of the Transitional National Council, of its decision.

The whereabouts of Colonel Qaddafi remained unknown, along with those of his other sons, most notably Seif al-Islam, his second-in-command; Khamis, the head of an elite paramilitary brigade; and Muatassim, a militia commander and Colonel Qaddafi’s national security adviser. A rebel spokesman said Sunday that Khamis al-Qaddafi might have been killed on Saturday, but that no positive identification had been made.

On Monday, new hints emerged about the locations of the family and members of its inner circle. A former associate of the Qaddafi government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said that Mr. Ibrahim had sought refuge in Surt, the hometown of Mr. Ibrahim as well as Colonel Qaddafi.

The associate said that the Qaddafis had stashed large sums of cash around the country to support themselves and to continue paying loyal fighters.

The rebels have said they would not consider their victory complete until they capture or kill the colonel, who ruled Libya for nearly 42 years.

Algeria is the only North African neighbor of Libya that has not recognized the Transitional National Council as the new government. During the six-month conflict, the rebels repeatedly accused the Algerians of arming the Qaddafi government, and said they had arrested Algerian nationals fighting for the government.

In Tripoli, rebel forces on Monday took visible new steps toward installing themselves as the official government, signing new energy deals with ENI, Italy’s biggest oil company, and permitting France and Britain, the leading members of the NATO alliance that has assisted the rebel movement, to send advance teams into Tripoli with the intent of re-establishing their embassies here.

With the signs of progress came reminders of the war’s cost.

Large numbers of sub-Saharan migrant workers who have been stranded in Tripoli since the early days of the conflict remained stuck in two squalid camps, afraid to try to leave for home. In one of the camps, in a port, hundreds took refuge among rusted and broken boats, and in the other, on farmland close to an airport, men, women and young children sought shelter under trees or in rough cinderblock sheds.

Many of the migrants said they feared attacks by rebel fighters, who have frequently mistaken them for mercenaries from countries like Chad and Sudan.

“They think that I’m a fighter for Qaddafi,” said Peace John, from Nigeria, who was one of about 200 people staying at the farm. “I don’t know even now whether he is here, or he is gone. There’s no news in this camp.”

Bride Eki, a Nigerian who said he had spent six months at the farm, said: “I don’t know the Qaddafi people. I don’t know the rebels. Everything is bad.”

The chairman of the African Union, Jean Ping, said Monday that the plight of the stranded migrants was an important reason the union has so far refused to recognize the Transitional National Council. Mr. Ping told reporters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that the African Union wanted clarification from the Libyan council because it “seems to confuse black people with mercenaries.”


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